Podium Powers: Hispanic Conductors on the Rise

Jacomo Rafael Bairos leads his first concert as music director of the Amarillo Symphony on July 4, 2013.
Jacomo Rafael Bairos leads his first concert as music director of the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra on July 4, 2013.

This article originally appeared in Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.

When José-Luis Novo was asked to conduct Latin American music early in his career, he frequently declined, fearing people would peg him as a Hispanic specialist. Novo, who left his native Spain to study at Yale University as a Fulbright Scholar, would sometimes conduct Spanish-flavored works by Ravel or Falla, but also made sure to include plenty of Berlioz or Tchaikovsky on his programs.

But increasingly, Novo is happy for the chance to conduct repertoire f rom his home country and by other Latino composers. He opened a recent season at the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he has been music director since 2007, with music by Revueltas, Ginastera, Piazzolla, and Gabriela Lena Frank. In May he will conduct Diez Melodías Vascas (Ten Basque Melodies) by the Spanish composer Jesús Guridi. “Now at this point in my career I’m eager to do more of it,” says Novo of Spanish-themed programming. “I like to think I have a special affinity that other conductors don’t have. It makes a special connection with the musicians. You have access to information that others don’t.”

Novo’s experience attests to the underlying tensions that Latino conductors face as they assume a sometimes uneasy variety of roles: as de facto standard-bearers for their native traditions—highlighted in community-engagement events—and as artists who grasp the core canon of Bach through Stravinsky. When, in the 1930s, the Mexican composer and conductor Carlos Chavez toured the U.S. and led nearly all of the top American orchestras, attitudes were starkly different. Despite advocacy from an establishment figure like Aaron Copland, Chavez was seen as somewhat of an exotic specimen, with one music critic expressing amazement at “his genuine grounding in the classic tradition.”

But in the last five years or so, roughly a dozen American music directorships have gone to Hispanics, including those at the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel), Houston Symphony (Colombian Andrés Orozco-Estrada), Nashville Symphony (Giancarlo Guerrero, from Costa Rica), and Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Pablo Heras-Casado, from Spain), along with several smaller-budget ensembles. Assistant and resident directorships have seen similar trends, reflecting a growing pipeline of talent. Latinas are underrepresented but not altogether absent, with women like Gisele Ben-Dor (born in Uruguay), Joana Carneiro (the Portuguese-born music director at California’s Berkeley Symphony), and Alondra de la Parra (who led the New York-based Orchestra of the Americas from 2004 until its collapse amid labor troubles in 2011, and is now active in Mexico).

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the nonprofit Sphinx Organization, which encourages and supports the participation of blacks and Latinos in classical music, believes that the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s hiring of Dudamel in 2008 largely triggered the current trend involving conductors. “Once the field saw how tremendously successful that was, to have someone young and representing a community not often represented on the podium, sometimes it takes that for us to get it,” he says. Dworkin cautions that conductors, while important, are just one piece of a larger matrix. “Seeing more Latinos on the podium is a fantastic thing in and of itself—a transformation for an institution,” he continues. “But it will never be enough. All of those orchestras need to see how can we have this impact on our audience, our repertoire, our membership on stage, even our staff and our board.”

Indeed, as with American orchestra musicians, Hispanic conductors active in the U.S. still lag far behind their demographic representation in the country as a whole; the 2010 U.S. Census showed that Hispanics account for 16.7 percent of the U.S. population but, according to a 2010 report by the League of American Orchestras, only 2.3 percent of orchestra musicians are Hispanic.

Still, some observers are encouraged by the outcomes of vast public music education initiatives like El Sistema in Venezuela and Batuta in Colombia. What’s more, this vibrant mix of nationalities is also the largest-growing segment of the classical music audience according to another study by the League, the 2009 Audience Demographic Research Review, and there is a growing awareness that this audience must be better served. The census underscored this, showing that racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 90 percent of the population growth over the past decade, and that Hispanics are by far the largest part of that increase. Moreover, as Hispanics’ buying power increases, they are going to be voracious consumers of entertainment and media–more so than white audiences, according to a 2013 Nielsen Research study.

When the Amarillo Symphony in Texas hired Jacomo Rafael Bairos last July as its music director, the organization was candid about its desire to reach Amarillo’s growing Hispanic community. “Part of the process there was getting to know the needs of the town,” says Bairos, who was born in Portugal, raised mostly in Miami, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese. The population of Amarillo is 29 percent Hispanic. “Having that as part of my culture growing up definitely influenced my musical tastes and style. I’m excited now I get to share that in Amarillo.”

Bairos says discussions about reaching Hispanic audiences have mostly centered on programming: including more Latin-American pieces throughout the season, and possibly presenting a festival in spring 2015 centered on music from the Americas. “If we start to infuse programs with a sort of Latin tinge, we can hopefully start to reach out to different demographics,” he notes.

Six months before Bairos’s appointment, another Texas orchestra, the Houston Symphony, announced that Colombian-born Andrés Orozco-Estrada would be its next music director. In an online promotional video, the orchestra’s managers tout the fact that Orozco-Estrada “possesses personality and a Hispanic background” and they note that he is fluent in Spanish, German, and English. The city’s mayor, Annise Parker, makes an appearance in the video, noting that the conductor has a “diverse story to fit into the local community.”

Thanks to a large influx of immigrants over the past several decades, Houston has become what is sometimes termed a “majority minority” city, with 60 percent of its residents of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent. Hispanics constitute a 44 percent share, according to the 2010 Census, up from 37 percent in 2000. Orozco-Estrada follows Hans Graf, a 64-year-old Austrian who has led the ensemble for twelve years.

Orozco-Estrada declined to be interviewed for this article, citing schedule conflicts. But there remains a reticence among Hispanic conductors to draw attention to their ethnicity, and in interviews, some dismissed suggestions that Spanish- or Latin-themed programs can serve as a community-engagement strategy. If anything, most conductors try to blend works by Hispanic composers with Latin-themed pieces from the European canon; a piece by Ginastera, Villa-Lobos, or Golijov will often sit beside Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, Copland’s El Salón México, or Bizet’s Carmen.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony, speaks to the audience at an open house event (Credit: Richard Rodriguez)
Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony, speaks to the audience at an open house event (Credit: Richard Rodriguez)

“Music is music,” says Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the Peruvian-born music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra since 2000. “Only certain politicians have used music at certain times for a purpose. I want to stay away from that. If anything, our Hispanic community has become more attached to what we have become as an institution than to coming to hear music from Latin America.”

Harth-Bedoya has been working steadily to bring more Hispanic music into the repertory through his multimedia project, Caminos del Inka, which he started in 2007 and has brought to a number of U.S. orchestras. The multimedia project was in- spired by the Inca Trail, a series of ancient pathways that link Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina, as it explores and highlights the classical music of South America. But Harth-Bedoya says it’s not about targeting audiences, and that he has taken it to cities like Oslo, Norway and Helsinki, Finland—neither of which has a large Hispanic population—and received an enthusiastic response.

Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, believes current trends are
part of the natural ebb and flow. He disputes the idea that orchestras select conductors specifically to connect with Hispanic communities. “I don’t think orchestras are seeking that out particularly,” he says. “There’s definitely a heightened awareness of the potential for growing an audience among Spanish-speaking people, but it’s hard to imagine that would be a driving force in hiring a music director.

“Still, in every instance,” Rosen adds, “what’s most important is the chemistry that happens with an orchestra and the kind of music-making that happens. Having said that, I’m sure in some communities it’s a huge plus to have a conductor of Hispanic descent.” Much of the activity by orchestras to connect with Spanish-speaking communities, Rosen notes, is driven not by the music director but by other departments in the organization, such as education and marketing.

Recent audience trends suggest that more targeted engagement with Hispanics will be necessary to turn them into repeat concertgoers. The 2009 Audience Demographic Research Review by the League—which combined data from the NEA and the Experian Simmons National Hispanic Consumer Study—found that participation rates among classical music audiences declined 9.3 percent between 2003 and 2007. Among Hispanics, the drop was not quite as steep, at 8.1 percent. But more telling was the study’s ten-year forecast: Hispanics’ share of the classical audience is expected to grow from about 12 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2018. This is driven chiefly by population increases, but also to some degree by a growth in interest and spending power among Hispanics.

Nevertheless, significant challenges lie ahead. The League’s 2009 report acknowledges that “marketers are struggling to convert Hispanics to repeat attendance,” whether through Spanish-language media, grassroots awareness building, or festivals around cultural themes (Cinco de Mayo, Día de los Muertos). The report was also published well before the recent spate of conductor appointments and new Census data.

Knowing Your Community

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra set out two years ago with a plan to build its Latino audience. While the orchestra had long produced a patchwork of events for the city’s Mexican population, now it enlisted the Purple Group, a communications firm focused on the Hispanic community, to conduct market research.

“Knowing that our community’s Latino population is growing, our marketing has to change with it,” says Liz Madeja, the orchestra’s director of marketing. In January 2013, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra formed the CSO Latino Alliance, a networking group that aims to spread the word about the orchestra through professional connections. The orchestra hosts quarterly pre- and post-concert events for the group, whose eighteen members invite their colleagues from the Hispanic business community. The CSO is building a database and has established goals of a 10- to 20-percent annual growth in Hispanic audiences, with a particular focus on 30- to 50-year-olds. Madeja says that the CSO Latino Alliance events have centered on Latino program- ming—reflected in the conductor, soloist, or program—though the orchestra is find- ing that members are also happy to come hear Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.

Indeed, conservative musical tastes are not to be underestimated, regardless of ethnicity. A May 2013 CSO concert of music by Revueltas and Ginastera was marked by empty seats, according to a Chicago Tribune review. The conductor, Carlos Miguel Prieto, recently led a similar program with the Houston Symphony. (The orchestra did not respond to requests for comment on the program, though a review in the Houston Press suggested a more successful audience response on the opening night.) “Doing diverse repertoire doesn’t mean playing for a certain community,” says Prieto, music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic since 2005 and since 2011 of the YOA Orchestra of the Americas. “In other words, I don’t think the Houston Sym- phony is doing this—or should be doing this—because of the fact that Houston has such a big Latin community. I think it’s just worthy, period.”

Orchestras are also wary of seeming to pigeonhole an audience they may not fully understand. Institutions like the CSO have found that improved, ongoing dialogue with a community is more crucial than top-down, one-time engagement events. Current thinking is that concertgoing habits, no matter where one is f rom, don’t come naturally. But orchestras can count on the aspirational factor: people of all colors and classes want their children to have exposure to music, and that may be a real key to bringing Latinos to the symphony.

Ultimately, one-off concerts aimed at a specific ethnic community may have little impact. The Annapolis Symphony reports that it has seen little if any uptick in Hispanic patrons since Novo assumed the directorship. But Novo believes the current influx of Latino conductors itself is encouraging. “Being a Latin American or Hispanic, now there are role models,” he said. “Now you can tell there is a lot of Hispanic talent in the conducting world, and people can tell you it’s there. The fact that Hispanic conductors and composers are pretty much accepted because we have some very good examples makes it easy for us, because we don’t have to fight as much.”

More than ever, as classical music works to entice new listeners, it will be essential for a music director to be a cultural leader in the community, a proselytizer-in-chief for the art form. Just as Yo-Yo Ma became a figurehead for Asian classical musicians a generation ago, and singers like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman carried the flag for African-Americans in opera, Hispanic conductors may have a similar ability to reach kids from Paraguay to Portugal: they may see someone on the podium who looks like them, who speaks their language, who comes from their same country, and be inspired.

New York Thrill

Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, 10/23/14. (credit: Chris Lee)
Alan Gilbert conducts the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, 10/23/14. (credit: Chris Lee)

This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of the BBC Music Magazine.

An ambitious project to resurrect the works of Danish composer Carl Nielsen is just one of the many innovations of the New York Philharmonic’s music director Alan Gilbert. Brian Wise meets New York’s musical visionary.

With all the ways that the New York Philharmonic has seized the news headlines in 2012 – a mobile phone halting a performance of Mahler, players quitting or retiring, a massive concert in the hangar-like Park Avenue Armory – you might think that a recording cycle of Carl Nielsen’s music for a small Danish label would be fairly low among the orchestra’s priorities.

The Danish composer’s six symphonies and three concertos are often viewed as post-Romantic curiosities, tagged with odd nicknames (‘The Inextinguishable’) and overshadowed by fellow Nordic composer Jean Sibelius. For a famously brash orchestra known for its Beethoven, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, this corner of the repertoire may seem too arcane to merit significant advocacy. But Alan Gilbert, who is entering his fourth season as the Philharmonic’s first New York-born music director, believes he can raise Nielsen’s visibility where his predecessors could not. ‘Leonard Bernstein was most famously excited by the music of Nielsen,’ says Gilbert during an interview in the same modest Lincoln Center office once used by Bernstein. ‘But it doesn’t seem to have quite taken hold. I’m not sure why because it’s eminently approachable and understandable music.’

The Philharmonic is one of a handful of orchestras recording Nielsen’s symphonies and concertos (for violin, flute and clarinet) in the lead-up to the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2015. This represents the first big push since the Nielsen revival of the 1960s, marked by Bernstein’s recording of the Third and Fifth Symphonies. But that boom never quite took hold, however, aside from a smattering of releases by Eugene Ormandy, Jascha Horenstein and Herbert Blomstedt.

Gilbert believes audiences will follow his passion, even as it shares a crowded agenda at the Philharmonic. ‘Even on the first hearing it’s obviously right out of the central European symphonic tradition,’ Gilbert says of the symphonies. ‘What I like about it is it takes that tradition and makes something very unique. I don’t know if it’s Danish or if it’s just Nielsen himself but there’s kind of a quirky persona that speaks through this essentially traditional symphonic form.’

The first release in ‘The Nielsen Project’ is due out in October on the Dacapo label and will feature live concert recordings of the Second and Third Symphonies. The Third, recorded in June at Avery Fisher Hall, showed why Nielsen’s music can be so strange but also compelling: it opens with big unison chords set out in increasingly asymmetrical rhythms which stumble into a kind of drunken waltz. Later, a baritone and a soprano deliver a vocalise while standing in the midst of the orchestra. Nielsen himself played in the second violin section during the premiere of his First Symphony, in 1894. ‘Nielsen was an extremely well- schooled musician and fascinating person from what I understand,’ says Gilbert. ‘He was apparently well known for doing impressions and dressing up as different characters. There are actually some photographs of him in various poses and various outfits – including dresses. That kind of desire to express different personalities and characters comes through in his music.’

The 45-year-old Gilbert has been on a Nielsen campaign since serving as chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, from 2000 to 2008. His Nordic orientation quickly carried over in New York. He named the Finn Magnus Lindberg as composer in residence and opened his inaugural concert in 2009 with the composer’s piece EXPO. Recently he led a new song cycle by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, with Renée Fleming as soloist.

Gilbert has also shown more sympathy towards European modernists than US composers, although this season marks a change with the arrival of Christopher Rouse as the next composer in residence. Now starting the fourth year in a five-year contract, Gilbert leads a 170-year-old institution that faces many of the same uncertainties that confront other US orchestras. Musicians have a new two-year contract, but hefty pension liabilities remain. A renovation of the widely scorned Avery Fisher Hall is planned in the near future, which will displace the ensemble for a long period. And Matthew VanBesien, the orchestra’s new executive director, hired from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, is unknown in New York.

The New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert (photo: Chris Lee)
The New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert (photo: Chris Lee)

The Philharmonic gets generally high marks for its sound and character, but critics have prodded Gilbert to follow his more adventurous instincts – even as he has moved the programming beyond the staidness of his predecessor Lorin Maazel. Close observers say that the Philharmonic remains a conservative institution in many respects and Gilbert must balance his more daring nature with the tastes of an old-school subscriber base.

Even so, Gilbert has whipped up a bit of visual spectacle for the Philharmonic’s season-closers since arriving, with staged operas – Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre in 2010, and Janácek’s The Cunning Little Vixen in 2011 – that brought clever, colourful costumes and sets into Avery Fisher Hall. This year, the spectacle was the most audacious yet: an evening of surround-sound works that included a scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, pieces by Boulez and Ives, and one of the summits of the avant-garde, Stockhausen’s Gruppen. The event took place in the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan.

‘It was an experiment and one that generally went well,’ says Gilbert. He was especially satisfied with having pulled off Gruppen – a 1957 work that calls for three orchestras, each with its own conductor, arrayed in a horseshoe around the audience. Gilbert acknowledged that the Act I finale from Don Giovanni – in which the cast sang from all corners – wasn’t entirely successful given the Armory’s large acoustics. ‘We’ve learned a lot and that was another reason why we wanted to do it because I think we have some exciting vocal projects planned for the future in the Armory and now we’ll know much better how to deal with those.’

But besides being a logistical feat, the project had true event status in a city where a daily commute can be an event. The two performances were sold out weeks in advance and they drew a younger audience. ‘What I hoped would happen is happening – that there is kind of an identity and trust with the audience that is getting stronger,’ says Gilbert. ‘That’s simply because we do something people are going to be interested in taking part in, trying it out and taking the risk.’

The Philharmonic says it is undertaking audience research to understand who attends these big season-ending concerts, and what else they might be attracted to. That might include next June’s Stravinsky’s Petrushka, featuring puppets, dancers, live animation and video, in a production created by Doug Fitch.

These events represent a vastly different image of the Philharmonic experience than one that made global headlines earlier this year, when a subscriber’s mobile phone went off during the delicate final pages of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In the heat of the moment, Gilbert made a nearly unprecedented move: he stopped the performance. The ringing kept on going, however, and audiences were soon baying for blood. ‘Kick him out,’ they screamed, ‘Go home!’. Gilbert turned around and said, matter-of-factly, ‘We’ll wait.’ Days of blanket news media coverage followed.

‘I was surprised and not a little fascinated that it struck such a chord,’ says Gilbert, now admitting he enjoyed the story. ‘It’s actually an encouraging sign that people find it so blasphemous, almost, to interrupt a concert. It’s like something went against nature. I think it’s actually a good sign for what we do and how people view what we do.’

New Notes on the Autism Scale

New Jersey Symphony musicians Susan Gellert (L) and Ann Kossakowski (R) perform at Eden Autism Services in Princeton, NJ
New Jersey Symphony musicians Susan Gellert (L) and Ann Kossakowski (R) perform at Eden Autism Services in Princeton, NJ (Photo: Fred Stucker/NJSO)
This article appeared in Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.

It wasn’t the kind of concert that receives glowing press or even a sellout crowd, but the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s June 27 performance was deemed an auspicious success by its organizers.

This was the Pittsburgh Symphony’s first sensory-friendly performance—a concert designed specifically for families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which involves, among other things, a hypersensitivity to light and sound, as well as for those with sensory sensitivities and other disabilities. The single event—of mostly pops-style pieces including Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Rimsky- Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee—drew $75,000 in funding. Pre-concert materials designed to familiarize concertgoers with the experience in advance included a story about attending performances at Heinz Hall, a musical playlist on Spotify, and introductory videos. Some $5,000 worth of free tickets were distributed through a variety of support organizations for families in need.

While attendance was a relatively modest 850 patrons, symphony officials noted that it was comparable to other arts organizations’ sensory-friendly events, and bad weather may have kept some concert-goers away. An orchestra spokesman said feedback from board, staff members, musicians, and some 50 volunteers had been overwhelmingly positive, and a similar event is planned for next year.

The Pittsburgh Symphony is one of a growing number of American orchestras that have responded to calls from autism advocates to provide sensory-friendly concerts. Many orchestras see these as a way to connect with overlooked segments of their communities and become more inclusive. The concerts also mirror a belief that people with disabilities can be better served overall: while disabled adults comprise nearly 12 percent of the U.S. adult population, they represent just under 7 percent of all adults attending perform- ing arts events, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Parents of children on the autism spectrum have welcomed these new opportunities because they otherwise shy away from public outings for fear that their child’s idiosyncratic behaviors—including sounds and movements—will be disruptive. A 2014 review of ten academic studies showed that music therapy may help children with autism-spectrum disorder to improve their skills in social interaction and communication. Further, as the nonprofit organization Music for Autism notes, these concerts can “fill a major psychosocial void, enabling children to enjoy enriching activities that are inclusive and to experience the joy and power of music as a family.”

Shaping Specialized Concerts

The Pittsburgh Symphony's sensory-friendly concert included a customized instrument petting zoo that was shaped to the abilities of the audience members.
The Pittsburgh Symphony’s sensory-friendly concert included a customized instrument petting zoo that was shaped to the abilities of the audience members. (Photo: Wade Massie)

To make a performance autism-friendly, several aspects of the concert experience are modified. House lights are typically kept on at 30 to 50 percent of their full power, and music is modified to temper loud sounds. Concert halls often are set up with a quiet area adjacent to the lobby for audience members who are over- stimulated and need a break. Some also set aside open space at the front of the house, where patrons are encouraged to move about freely as needed. Still, guidelines are a work in progress, and some arts groups have grappled with how to serve a wide spectrum of people with autism.

“Disability-friendly programming goes beyond wheelchair entrances,” says Robert Accordino, a physician who in 2007 founded the U.S. branch of the nonprofit organization Music for Autism. “Catering to these families is in some ways the most challenging. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model. This challenges us to think differently.” Music for Autism organizes about 35 concerts annually in New York, Maryland, California, and Texas, using professional musicians. The organization’s mission is to enhance quality of life and raise public awareness through autism-friendly, interactive concerts developed for individuals with autism and their families. It is one of several nonprofits with which arts groups have partnered to develop targeted programming; other organizations include Autism Friendly Spaces and The Musical Autist.

“There isn’t a blueprint or a set of guidelines that we’ve figured out are best practices,” says Jessica Swanson, manager of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ disability programs. In developing programs with the National Symphony Orchestra and other constituents, the Kennedy Center relies heavily on feedback from its patrons and institutional partners (the Kennedy Center also works with Music for Autism). “We’ve been able to identify what families are telling us are the most important things,” says Swanson, “but not to the degree where we know it can’t be any louder than X or any brighter than Y.”

Beyond determining how to develop sensory-friendly concerts lies a more fundamental question of why. Kennedy Center officials regard these concerts as critical to its extensive menu of disability programs, particularly as the national autism rate climbed in 2014 to one in 68 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This reflects a 30 percent rise in just two years, though it is unclear exactly how much the increase is due to a broader definition of ASD and better efforts in diagnosis.

Not surprisingly, orchestras are more likely to embrace sensory-friendly concerts when a musician or staff member has a personal commitment to the cause. Holly Hamilton, a violinist in the National Symphony Orchestra who also works with Music for Autism, initiated the Kennedy Center’s efforts after taking her son, Clark Patterson, who has an intellectual disability as well as visual and hearing impairments, to her own performances at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia.

Hamilton recalls how the outdoor amphitheater at Wolf Trap allowed Patterson to sit in the back and applaud or playfully conduct along without causing a disturbance. This convinced her that such conditions could be replicated in more traditional concert venues. She also believes that music can have positive behavioral effects. “What surprised me is how open the kids are to the music,” she says of the concerts. “Some of them are nonverbal but their eyes light up. You can always get a good reaction from them.”

The Kennedy Center launched its sensory-friendly performances in 2012 and now presents five such events annually, one of which features the NSO. Hamilton also takes chamber groups from the National Symphony Orchestra to special-education schools including the Ivymount School in Rockville, Maryland. Swanson, of the Kennedy Center, sums up the concerts as “no-shushing shows and no-judgment zones.”

Held “Rapt” by Orchestras

Perhaps the most extensive autism-friendly orchestra series takes place at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, which also serves a state with the highest reported rates of autism, at one in 45 children. The New Jersey Symphony launched a series of chamber music concerts in 2012 that now involves seventeen performances at ten partner schools and community centers. Last season, it reached 1,600 people across two counties, according to Marshell Jones Kumahor, the New Jersey Symphony’s vice president of education and community engagement. This reflects the orchestra’s mission to serve the entire state, she says, and to develop stronger ties with other arts and community groups.

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s program started with a request from a longtime subscriber who said that her autistic son was held “rapt” by the sound of an orchestra. After some exploration of the topic, the orchestra formed an eleven-member advisory group to study the issue, and it raised seed money through a $15,000 Getty Education and Community Investment Grant from the League of American Orchestras (funding is now provided by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey and Johnson & Johnson).

Jones Kumahor says the orchestra regularly surveys its audiences through its partner organizations, which include schools and learning centers in Newark, Irvington, and Montclair, New Jersey. Unlike some arts groups, which have focused on the most “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum, Jones Kumahor notes that the NJSO has sought “to serve as wide a range as possible on the spectrum,” which makes for a greater challenge as the lower-functioning listeners tend to have little or no language, greater mental challenges, and little awareness of people or social expectations. So far, 26 out of 53 members of the orchestra have given chamber music concerts at schools and learning centers as part of the program.

Orchestras often consult with occupational therapists to learn how to structure concert formats, yet repertoire for sensory-friendly concerts often differs little from traditional children’s events. “We’ve found a little bit of everything to work the best, because it gives [listeners] something to hold onto,” said Ryan Gardner, a trumpet player and coordinator for Music for Autism. “Stories have gone really, really well. Keeping the communication brief is crucial. But it’s also essential that we have that communication because without it, it doesn’t really give them anything to think about.”

Taken as a whole, there’s a considerable variety of approaches in autism-friendly programming, even as certain parameters remain constant. During a tour to China in 2013, a group of musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra performed for some 20 children with autism at a youth center in Shanghai. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a “version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ on trumpets and a surprisingly inventive ‘Amazing Grace’ by a young man whose left hand played piano while his right played a battery-powered organ.” During the orchestra’s 2014 China tour, Philadelphia musicians worked with students from the Sound of Angel Salon, an orchestra that trains children with autism to engage with their surroundings through music. The young musicians also performed for an audience that included Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted the students in an impromptu performance.

Understanding Neurodiversity

The Kennedy Center launched its sensory-friendly performances in 2012 and now presents five such events annually. (Photo: Scott Suchman)
The Kennedy Center launched its sensory-friendly performances in 2012 and now presents five such events annually. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

More recently, and on a different scale, Gannon University’s Erie Chamber Orchestra in Pennsylvania held a weeklong festival in April dedicated to music therapy, with a special focus on children with autism. The festival featured workshops, lectures, and an orchestral concert, “Burden of Genius,” led by Erie Chamber Music Director Matthew Kraemer and consisting of works by composers with neurological issues (including Beethoven, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf ). Events included therapy sessions and in-service presentations for therapists/educators at Barber National Institute, which is based in Erie and serves people with disabilities; a radio broadcast on Erie-based NPR affiliate WQLN; and a science-and-music presentation at Gannon University.

The festival was part of an ongoing partnership between ECO and the Barber National Institute established in 2013. Elsewhere, the Madison (Wisconsin) Symphony, New Mexico Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra are among the orchestras to explore autism-friendly programming.

Other corners of the classical music field have taken notice. The Boston Conservatory in 2014 announced a graduate-level music education program dedicated to providing training in music education and autism, believed to be the first of its kind, and leading to a master’s degree and a graduate certificate. And Lincoln Center’s education department has commissioned Up and Away, its first original work specifically for young audiences on the autism spectrum, featuring the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company. Loosely inspired by Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days, the musical theater piece had a run of previews in the spring and is slated to premiere at Lincoln Center’s Clark Studio Theater this fall.

These efforts come at a time when some campaigners see sensory-friendly events not simply as entertainment but as platforms for self-advocacy, a notion closely tied to neurodiversity—the theory that people with autism shouldn’t be forced to fit into society, but that society should change to include and accept them. C. J. Shiloh, the director of the Musical Autist organization, has gone so far as to describe sensory-friendly performances as a form of “social justice” for a badly marginalized population.

Some parents, however, are simply pleased to be out as a family among like-minded audience members. Attending an autism-friendly performance at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan in March, Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, said she had long shied away from taking her nine- year-old autistic son Norrin to a theater. “It’s always been difficult to navigate a regular show just because I don’t want to disturb other people,” she said. “It can be stressful, it can be overwhelming for him.” Nearby, a family relaxed in a “calming corner.” Quinones-Fontanez praised the theater’s presentation—everything from the ability to preview seats beforehand to family bathrooms, which allow parents and children to remain together.

During the New Victory show—by Flip FabriQue, a circus company from Quebec—children squirmed and giggled at the troupe’s slapstick humor, but they were also noticeably quiet during high-flying aerial routines. Gabriela Cassas, an usher, described the atmosphere as less hectic than a typical children’s show. “Being in an autism-friendly show, the environment is a lot safer,” she said. “Everyone is comfortable with each other. It’s a much more relaxed environment.”

Brooklyn Philharmonic, Innovative But Sounding a Troubled Tune

The Brooklyn Philharmonic performs "You're Causing Quite a Disturbance" in June 2013.
The Brooklyn Philharmonic performs “You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance” in June 2013 (courtesy of orchestra).

October 18, 2013

New York City Opera made international headlines in 2013 after it filed for bankruptcy. But another longstanding New York arts organization faced similar troubles, and with much less fanfare. Even some of its longtime partners were surprised, as I found in reporting this piece for WNYC and WQXR.

A Changing Landscape: Detroit Emerges from Bankruptcy to a Burgeoning Arts Scene

A warehouse near Eastern Market in Detroit
A warehouse near Eastern Market in Detroit (Brian Wise)

This article appeared in the summer 2015 issue of Listen magazine.

Soon after tuba player Dennis Nulty joined the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2009, he did what nearly every musician in the orchestra had done before him: he hightailed it to the suburbs. The then-twenty-two-year-old from Buffalo, NY had received one too many warnings about robberies and shootings around the desolate blocks near Orchestra Hall. The trendy suburb of Ferndale beckoned.

“When I joined there were three members in the whole orchestra that lived in the city,” Nulty said as he sipped a cappuccino at a loft-like coffee shop near Orchestra Hall. “I remember being floored by that. Nobody lived downtown.” But now, “the majority of new members and even some of the old members have moved back to the city.”

Orchestra Hall is a beautiful early-twentieth-century theater on Woodward Avenue in Midtown, a mixed-use neighborhood that’s slowly riding Detroit’s nascent comeback from the depths of bankruptcy. Nearby are the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose collection was saved last year from the auction block by a group of foundations and donors (who also bailed out the city’s pension shortfalls in the process).

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Detroit’s fledgling rebirth has been driven in part by arts and culture, spurred on by a combination of philanthropic largess, stunningly cheap real estate and a try-anything ethos. These factors prompted the Galapagos Arts Space to leave Brooklyn last year for Detroit’s Corktown and neighboring Highland Park neighborhoods, where it is taking over nine vacant buildings totaling about six-hundred-thousand square feet (purchased for just five hundred thousand dollars).

Similar circumstances helped to spawn New Music Detroit, which became the city’s first professional contemporary music ensemble when it launched in 2007, and now presents an annual series including a twelve-hour concert marathon in September.

Smaller grassroots organizations are following a similar path.

Leading Detroit’s cultural recovery are a handful of philanthropies, notably the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which underwrites the Detroit Symphony’s much-discussed free weekly webcasts (unique among orchestras), and which is also providing three hundred fifteen thousand dollars towards a year-long crowdsourcing project called “Symphony in D.” The concept is fairly simple: DSO patrons are being asked to record and submit sounds that define life in Detroit — a Tigers game, a house being demolished — which will then be woven into an original piece by the composer and inventor Tod Machover.

Machover said he hopes to spur a conversation about the city’s future. “Detroit truly is a city in transition with enormous potential, enormous problems and some real serious things that people are thinking about,” said the composer from his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Patrons are encouraged to submit found sounds through an iPhone app, Symphony in D; while response has so far been modest judging by the size of the app’s sound library, Machover has been making monthly visits to do field recording himself. The piece is set to premiere on November 20 and 21, 2015.

Max M Fisher Music Center in Detroit (Wikipedia Commons/Andrew Jameson)
Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit (Wikipedia Commons/Andrew Jameson)

The DSO has weathered a lot in its 101-year history, including labor strife, deficits, mediocre concert venues, cuts in state aid, canceled tours and criticism over its racial makeup (Detroit today is about eighty-three percent black; of the seventy-six full-time contracted DSO musicians, two are black, ten Chinese, five Korean, one Latino; twenty-four are women). It has always bounced back, as it has again sought to do after a particularly rancorous six-month strike in 2010-11. “There’s a great buzz about living here and the regeneration and revitalization,” said Anne Parsons, the Detroit Symphony’s president and CEO. “It’s very hard to fight trends in your environment. And we’ve been fighting trends as the DSO for years and years. So we are elated to see the progress.”

As Parsons spoke, a cement mixer poured concrete outside her window for a light-rail line that is being built up Woodward Avenue. In 2013, a Whole Foods store opened across the street. There’s a hope that the young professionals who identify the area with organic groceries can be lured to a DSO concert. Moreover, a long string of downtown residential building projects are in various stages of planning or construction to meet the rising demand among young professionals.

Many of these are being led by businessman developer Dan Gilbert, who is the founder of Quicken Loans, which employs some ten thousand workers at its downtown Detroit headquarters (it moved there from the suburbs in 2007). Quicken’s arrival has fanned other investments in downtown real estate, including the renovation of several abandoned buildings. And after some political hurdles, plans are now moving ahead for a new twenty-thousand-seat arena for the Detroit Red Wings just north of downtown.

One step in this direction came in February with a Tchaikovsky Festival, an eighteen-concert series that music director Leonard Slatkin designed in part to boost box office sales during a typically lean month. Orchestra officials say that thirteen percent more tickets were sold as a result of the festival, and the programs attracted twenty-four percent more new single-ticket buyers than typical classical concerts. And while Detroit Free Press music critic Mark Stryker questioned the festival’s artistic necessity, he conceded that it gave the orchestra a focused challenge as it continues to rebuild its post-strike ranks (many principal positions are newly-occupied by younger players).

In February 2016, the DSO will stage a Brahms Festival, but first, Parsons says, her staff is studying this year’s festival audience in an effort to draw them back.

Beyond the activity in Midtown and downtown, Detroit’s residential neighborhoods present a more onerous challenge, as vacant, rundown houses are widespread, city services are unreliable (though improving), and thousands of properties face foreclosure. Parts of the city have become famous chiefly for their “ruin porn.” Boosters point out that half of the 62,000 properties in the city facing foreclosure this year are expected to be auctioned for $500 apiece this fall — a potentially appealing option for artists priced out of richer cities.

Philanthropic money is increasingly being funneled to community-based projects serving these neglected neighborhoods. Two years ago, the Knight Foundation launched the Knight Arts Challenge, a program that last year awarded two and a half million in prize money to fifty-eight different arts projects. Among the recipients was V. Mitch McEwen, an architect who used ten thousand dollars in a challenge grant to buy a derelict house for twelve hundred dollars, which she plans to turn into a neighborhood opera house, and possibly an artist residency studio.

Another recipient of Knight funding is Rick Robinson, a double bassist who played in the Detroit Symphony for twenty-two years, until he left during the strike. This year he received a $30,000 matching Knight grant towards his organization Classical Revolution Detroit, which presents chamber music in bars and other non-traditional spaces. The award has enabled Robinson to expand his series to three events per month, and he brings string quartets and wind quintets to pubs in neighborhoods like Corktown, an up-and-coming nightlife district. His audiences, he says, include the “younger, hipper, louder and more social.”

While the Knight Foundation has also helped to stabilize established institutions like the Michigan Opera Theater — funding programs aimed at young professionals — it isn’t the only lifeline for Detroit’s cultural community. Most notably, the Troy-based Kresge Foundation has granted more than eighteen million dollars to local arts institutions and individuals since 2007. It remains to be seen whether the city can ever attract the kinds of mega-donors who give to cultural groups in cities like New York and Los Angeles.

There also remains the question of whether the influx of arts groups can serve neighborhood residents who have ridden out the city’s bad years. One of the DSO’s longstanding enterprises is its annual Classical Roots program, whose 2015 edition featured pieces by black composers including George Walker and William Grant Still; rousing gospel numbers by the Brazeal Dennard Chorale; and a spoken-word performance set to Duke Ellington by the narrator Charlotte Blake Alston. A racially diverse, if modestly-sized audience turned out for the eclectic, Friday morning concert in early March.

Like many American orchestras, the DSO seeks to be many things to many people, and one gets the sense that its programming mix remains a work in progress. Its finances have shown many signs of strength — with individual giving, ticket income subscription sales and endowment income all up last year — though some fragility lingers. The Free Press reports that the orchestra is still balancing the budget by raising millions of dollars annually in so-called bridge funding — forms of emergency payments given by major donors to cover income gaps. Leaders say that strategy is unsustainable.

Nevertheless, as Detroit becomes identified with a burgeoning arts scene, the DSO may feed off of that overall buzz. Johanna Yarbrough is a horn player who joined the DSO in 2012, at age twenty-three, and chose to live not in a suburb, but in Midtown. “People are not afraid to come downtown any more,” she said. “They’re not afraid to live here. So the DSO is becoming something else to do.”

The Highs and Lows of 2014 in Classical Music

A scene from John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer (credit: Richard Hubert Smith, English National Opera)
A scene from John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer (credit: Richard Hubert Smith, English National Opera)

In this edition of WQXR’s Conducting Business podcast, three top music critics looked back at the year 2014 in classical music. Joining host Naomi Lewin were Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post; David Patrick Stearns, classical music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and for WQXR’s Operavore blog; and Zachary Woolfe, now classical music editor of the New York Times.

Among the topics discussed were the Metropolitan Opera’s labor troubles and its contentious premiere of John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer; inventive programming at the orchestras of Philadelphia and Seattle; and the continued emergence of China on the orchestra landscape.


When Gender Stereotypes are Applied to Instruments

Carol Jantsch, tuba player, and Sivan Magen, harpist (Courtesy of artists)
Carol Jantsch, tuba player, and Sivan Magen, harpist (Courtesy of artists)

May 1, 2015

It’s no secret that girls at a young age take up what they perceive as “feminine” instruments, such as the flute, piccolo, violin, and clarinet while boys tend to gravitate towards trumpets, tubas and percussion.

In this edition of WQXR’s Conducting Business podcast, three guests discuss the origins of this phenomenon and how, when old stereotypes are challenged, it can sometimes lead to “cyber-bullying” and other forms of harassment among children.

Hal Abeles, the co-director of the Center for Arts Education Research at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says that “adolescents, males in particular, get intimidated by not being with the majority. So if the majority of students in your middle school who are playing flute are girls, young boys feel ‘I want to belong.'”

But instrument-based stereotypes can vary from culture to culture. Sivan Magen, a New York-based harpist, said he experienced few stereotypes while growing up in Israel or at the Paris Conservatory, where four of his eight classmates were male.

Carol Jantsch, the principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra, says she never got grief from her classmates as a kid in Ohio. “If you’re good at your instrument, your peers don’t care what you play,” she said. But conductors are another story, sometimes using the phrase “gentlemen of the brass” when addressing her section.

Finally, Ricky O’Bannon, a writer in residence at the Baltimore Symphony, believes teachers can do their part by simply downplaying the issue. “The moment you start saying ‘this instrument is not just for girls or not just for boys'” is the kiss of death, he noted. “It’s about having a child find the instrument that they’re going to enjoy and not having any extra pressures on that.”

Pablo Heras-Casado: Polymath on the Podium

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts a rehearsal of the Orchestra of St. Luke's (Brian Wise/WQXR)
Pablo Heras-Casado conducts a rehearsal of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Brian Wise/WQXR)

August 14, 2015

Among the conductors who has appeared on critics’ wish lists to succeed Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic is Pablo Heras-Casado, music director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and assistant conductor of Madrid’s Teatro Real.

In August 2015, Heras-Casado spoke about his conducting activities in New York, his eclectic repertoire interests (from medieval to modern), and the need to present a less stuffy image of classical music. In this clip, he addresses the idea of seating areas where people can Tweet during the concert.

Read the full article at WQXR.org.